BENDIGO had become "the spearhead of communism" and its trades hall needed to be purged, an RSL sub-branch president declared as hundreds of veterans prepared to march on the View Street building.
The year was 1949 and returned servicemen were part of what today appears the unlikely vanguard of the fight against the Red Menace.
It's a reminder of a forgotten era for RSLs, which this month marks 105 years since the first sub-branch was established in Australia.
But for much of its history Australia's RSL network often found itself on the front line of a threat lurking in domestic politics, not foreign battlefields.
That includes in Bendigo, where sometimes violent trades hall meetings spurred an anti-communist fervor that soon spread into a string of country towns.
So, how did our city become a hotbed for forces awaiting the downfall of capitalism?
And why on earth were RSLs leading the charge?
This is a story about the fight for control of Bendigo Trades Hall, which by the late 1940s had been taken over by unions aligned with groups like the Communist Party of Australia.
Communist aligned trade union officials barred the doors to the View Street hall multiple times, angry crowds heckled speakers and punches were thrown and multiple groups claimed control of the city's industrial agenda.
Bendigo's RSL sub-branch was one of the most vocal members of an alliance that appears to have shaped and reflected deeply held views about the threat of communism at all levels of Australian life.
It helped workers elect anti-communist union members to positions of power and organised rallies, then Bendigo RSL president J Skehan told his sub-branch's Anti-Communist Committee at a meeting attended by RSLs and multiple unions.
"It is up to us to rid Bendigo generally of the menace," he said in a Bendigo Advertiser story from 1949.
The RSL even had a weekly column in the newspaper which, among other things, occasionally plugged upcoming ant-communist rallies.
"Diggers assemble," one column from October 1949 implored readers.
"Bendigo sub-branch secretary urgently requests all diggers to assemble at the Memorial Hall to-night at 6.45pm," the cryptic article continued.
"They will be informed of what is required of them on their arrival. The matter is extremely urgent."
What followed that night were clashes between militant and moderate unionists at the town hall, with the latter taking over proceedings.
For many World War Two veterans, the fear of losing liberties they had fought for to totalitarian regimes like those in Russia and China was powerful.
More showdowns would take place in the year that followed, including later that month when police "chased" militant unionists from the hall, according to a Bendigo Advertiser report.
Crowds of as many as 500 people regularly turned up to force communists out of the hall over that two-year period, multiple media reports from Victorian news outlets show.
Numbers alone were not enough to stop communist-aligned groups.
Scuffles often broke out as speakers were howled down and eggs were thrown. Some workers turned hoses on union officials trying to speak at one worksite.
Anti-communist trade union officials began warning workers that their rivals were recruiting "bashers" to protect themselves at meetings, and to stay safe at Bendigo rallies.
Pro-communist groups alleged they were the victims of the same sorts of tactics.
La Trobe University's Ian Tulloch said Bendigo's industrial unrest was not as significant as others elsewhere in the country, but was a sign of the times.
"We are talking about this historical period just at the really early stages of the Cold War," the expert on Australian politics said.
"Mao had just taken over in China, Russia had risen."
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RSL leaders had been concerned about communism for decades and were finding common cause with conservative politicians, parts of the Labor party, right-wing unions and other "fellow travellers", Mr Tulloch said.
Communists were a force to be reckoned with and had come close to taking control of the Australian Council of Trade Unions in 1945.
It would have been a glittering prize. Unions represented as much as 60 per cent of the workforce, so they had a lot of influence.
What's more, many Australian workers were happy to give communist union officials the keys to union buildings.
"These leaders were all elected by members, of course. So it wasn't just that they took nefarious means to take over," Mr Tulloch said.
Many workers - including in Bendigo - believed communist union leaders were among the few militant enough to deliver them better pay.
They had a point.
Then prime minister and Labor party leader Ben Chifley had taken over the country as World War Two ended.
He had inherited an economy that had been pummeled by the war and was trying to rebuild it.
Chifley feared what might happen if unions allowed inflation to rise by pushing for wages his government deemed to be too high.
"I can imagine, quite easily, that this enabled a lot of Australian Communist Party officials to become elected," Mr Tulloch said.
And why wouldn't you be prepared to strike for better pay and conditions?
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That is exactly what had happened earlier in 1949, when communist union leaders helped lead a coal worker strike with the support of people across the country.
Chifley was so alarmed he deployed the army to fill labour shortages. It was the first time outside of war that soldiers had been used to break a strike.
The Reds were not just under the bed. They were on the picket lines.
Still, the Australian Communist Party largely failed to turn that workplace support into ideological change.
People wanted better pay, not revolution.
That communists controlled Bendigo's Trades Hall must have seemed an ominous sign to many when war with Russia seemed possible, if not likely.
The fights over trade unions could not have come at a worse time for the Labor government, which was fighting a losing battle to keep control in a looming election.
The Coalition was telling voters there was no difference between a moderate and militant in the Labor movement.
When you vote LABOR you vote SOCIALIST! And socialism is the road downhill to communism," one typical 1949 Liberal party election advertisement declared in the Bendigo Advertiser.
Labor lost power and unions lost their inside link to the corridors of power.
Things turned out much better for the Bendigo RSL anti-communist campaign.
It was so successful that towns like Echuca and Ballarat reenergised their own anti-communist movements.
The new Coalition government tried unsuccessfully to ban the Australian Communist Party in the 1950s.
Even without a ban, communist leaders in Bendigo had already lost power.
Moderate unionists smashed their way into the hall in August 1950 after communists barricaded the doors, bringing that battle for Bendigo to a close.
This story is the latest in the Bendigo Weekly's regular history series WHAT HAPPENED?
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